Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema saved the filibuster and cut down President Joe Biden’s agenda, delighting Republicans. Now they’re breaking with Democrats on the debt limit, and Republicans hope they keep it coming.
The two centrists, who spent Biden’s first two years in office at odds with the left, are glaring outliers on the debt drama in the party’s 51-member Senate caucus. While their Democratic colleagues insist on no negotiations until the debt ceiling is lifted, Manchin and Sinema are not only pushing for a bipartisan deal but positioning themselves as potential players in any future Senate talks on a way out of the crisis.
The Arizona independent and West Virginia Democrat have communicated that message in their own ways. Manchin has urged Biden to work directly with Speaker Kevin McCarthy and regularly puts out statements pushing for bipartisan talks that show up in GOP press releases. Sinema has quietly dined with McCarthy and signaled her hopes for a negotiated solution to GOP senators.
Republicans say they follow Manchin and Sinema’s utterances closely and hope the duo is subtly speaking for other Democrats, too.
“She’s trying to play a constructive role and try to get people to the table and understand that we can’t go over the brink on this,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who has spoken with Manchin and Sinema about the debt ceiling. “Manchin saying things like that is constructive and helpful. Hopefully helps his leadership realize … a straight debt increase just is a nonstarter.”
It’s too early for Manchin and Sinema to be negotiating a deal with Republicans — next week’s meeting between Biden and congressional leaders needs to play out first. But their clear push for a bipartisan solution is notable given how strongly they’ve resisted big portions of Biden’s agenda.
And there’s always the possibility that one of the Senate’s familiar bipartisan “gangs” swoops in to craft a debt limit remedy. If Manchin and Sinema throw their weight behind a bipartisan discussion, they have big priorities that could be in the mix, from immigration to energy permitting. They’re both up for reelection next year, though neither has committed to running again.
In typical Manchin form, the West Virginian centrist is already chiding Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for referring to the House GOP’s debt ceiling bill and its massive government spending cuts as “dead on arrival.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Manchin said of Schumer’s dismissal that “to say something’s dead on arrival, before we really had a chance to look at it — I think there’s a better way to approach it.”
Manchin said he’s told McCarthy “there’s things I don’t like in there, but there’s a lot of things we can agree on.” In particular, he touted the idea of approving a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission that would be required to bring deficit reduction legislation to the Senate floor.
He described himself as “fine” with the possibility that Biden and McCarthy would negotiate a debt agreement, the same position that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken. Manchin also pointed to the debt ceiling negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration as precedent for this time around — even as his colleagues say there’s nothing to negotiate.
“I don’t know why this is any different,” he said.
Sinema warned in a statement for this story that “playing chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States is irresponsible” given the impacts a debt default could have on her constituents.
“Both sides need to come together, put down the partisan talking points, and discuss realistic solutions to prevent default,” she said.
For Manchin and Sinema, the debt ceiling presents perhaps their best opportunity to influence Congress and the president during a time of divided government. Each could run for reelection in 2024, and playing a role in averting a catastrophic default would be huge for their respective potential campaigns.
Both of them resisted Democratic suggestions to raise the debt ceiling during the last Congress through a filibuster-avoiding maneuver known as budget reconciliation. That gave them extra credibility with Republicans.
“Many others agree with them among my Democratic friends, but they’re just not saying it. They’ve got to stick with Sen. Schumer’s party line,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said of Manchin and Sinema’s “very helpful” treatment of the debt limit.
“We’re all together on the floor, and I follow what they say publicly, and they’re both being very adult about it.”
There’s unfinished business for Manchin in the debt talks after the Senate rejected his energy permitting reform bill, which could make a return appearance in any deal. That’s on top of the prospect that the talks could address his continued complaints about the Biden administration’s implementation of the Democratic tax, climate and health care bill he helped write last year.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who appeared at an event with Manchin challenger-in-waiting Gov. Jim Justice last week, said she still appreciates Manchin’s rhetoric about debt negotiations: “I totally agree with what he says.”
As for Sinema, who left the Democratic Party last year, the debt ceiling is just one more example of her going her own way. She and Manchin have split on tax policy in the past, but he praised her policy positions on Tuesday: “She’s really pretty sharp on the fiscal responsibilities. We’re in pretty good agreement on it.”
At the moment, both are focused on the task at hand with no immediate timelines for announcing any 2024 reelection plans. But it’s not lost on anyone that cutting a debt deal could be crucial to their political brands.
“They’re both on the ballot, as you know, assuming they both choose to run. So they have some extra political calculations that certainly would play to a cooperative spirit,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (D-N.D.) said.
His hope for the coming days: “Joe and Kyrsten send some signals that ‘Hey, let’s do this reasonably.’”
Other centrist Democrats haven’t taken the same tack as Manchin and Sinema. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), for example, is fine with negotiating on spending and deficit reduction, but only after a clean debt ceiling increase goes into law. That openness to a two-step process is “overwhelmingly” where Senate Democrats are, said progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Schumer on Tuesday reiterated his disinterest in giving ground, as the Senate’s two most famous centrists would prefer.
“As Democrats expose the Default on America bill for what it is, our position remains the same: Both parties should pass a clean bill to avoid default together before we hit the critical upcoming June 1 deadline,” he said at a press conference.
He and Biden are determined to show no daylight between them heading into the meeting between congressional leaders and the president. But once leaders are there, Manchin said he hopes Biden would deviate from his public remarks to meet McCarthy and McConnell halfway.
“Talk about: How do we accumulate so much debt in such a short period of time in the last two decades?” Manchin said. “We cannot stay on this trajectory to this much debt.”
Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.